If you like conspiracy theories, here’s one Shakespeare would probably not have thanked you for. In the years after his death, there was a fellow going around telling people that he was Shakespeare’s illegitimate son. Not only that but, after a few drinks, laughingly telling his companions that his mother was a bit of a [bleep].
That was very unworthy of him, particularly as he was probably the most famous and respected man in London during the 1660s. By that time he had been knighted by King Charles I and had been Poet Laureate for more than twenty years. He was in favour with Charles II and hugely popular among London society. He was highly admired and yet he wasn’t honouring his father (either of them) and his mother!
His name was Sir William D’Avenant, or Davenant. He might well have been Shakespeare’s son because there was a sense in which he took after the Bard. He wrote plays that were very popular, several of them performed at the royal court; he founded and ran the Duke’s Theatre for a whole decade, which is hailed as the most famous theatre in history after Shakespeare’s Globe; and, like Shakespeare, he made a lot of money.
Long before Davenant was born his parents, John and Jane Davenant, had known Shakespeare. They had lived in the theatre area, on the south bank of the Thames, in Southwark. John Davenant was a drama addict and spent much of his time in theatres.
While in London the couple had six children, all of whom died in childhood. What were they to do? The solution was to move out of the city. They went to Oxford. John got a job as landlord of a tavern and they settled down and had eight more children, all of whom survived to adulthood. They fitted comfortably into the community and, indeed, John later became mayor of Oxford. Although he was well liked John was known as the man who never smiled while Jane was universally admired for her beauty.
In 2013 the owners of The Crown, a pub in Oxford, opened a redecorated room to tourists and claimed that it was the room in which Shakespeare had stayed during his commutes between Stratford and London. It’s known as The Painted Room. As the story goes, he stopped at the halfway mark and combined resting his weary bones with a visit to his old friends.
There’s no evidence that Shakespeare stayed there, however. Many writers have said that he stayed at The Crown Tavern, but there was no such place during Shakespeare’s lifetime. The building known as The Crown was built on the site of the stables of the inn that had been there, but during Shakespeare’s lifetime the tavern was called the Salutation Tavern. It was owned by New College and run by John Davenant. It was renamed The Crown long after Davenant’s time there.
The story of William Shakespeare and William Davenant has Shakespeare as Davenant’s godfather. Davenant was born in March, 1606 and baptised three days later. That might have been, so but there is no trace of it in the parish records, and certainly, Shakespeare’s name is nowhere to be seen.
Davenant was ten years old when Shakespeare died. He clearly had an emotional or spiritual connection with the famous visitor, because two years later he wrote a poem – a pretentious, precocious poem – titled “In Remembrance of Master William Shakespeare” that showed little talent. You can skip over this, the first stanza of the poem:
Beware, delighted poets, when you sing,
To welcome nature in the early spring,
Your numerous feet not tread
The banks of Avon, for each flower
(As it ne’er knew a sun or shower)
Hangs there, the pensive head.
We don’t have any reminiscences regarding interactions he may have had with the Bard as a boy, but his brother Tom, who became a bishop, told people that he remembered being bounced on Shakespeare’s knee when he was a child.
John Aubrey, man about town, popular philosopher and gatherer of tittle-tattle, was the seventeenth century version of a gossip columnist. He wrote a book of biographical sketches, Brief Lives, and William Davenant is one of his subjects. Like all of Aubrey’s sketches, it’s highly entertaining.
Aubrey claims that the poet, Samuel Butler, who was a close friend and dining companion of Davenant, told him that when Davenant had had a few drinks he would joke that he was Shakespeare’s illegitimate son, even saying that his mother was morally loose.
Not very nice, is it? That claim by Aubrey, gained at second hand, is the only source of the story. But is it likely that, having borne fourteen children she must have been far too busy being pregnant and raising her children to be sneaking off to romp with her husband’s friend, having one-off encounters right under his nose? Surely common sense forbids?
Given that so little is known about Shakespeare it’s not surprising that he has become the victim of conspiracy theories. For example, there is a serious debate by conspiracy theorists regarding the authorship of the plays. The claim is that he did not write the plays and someone else did, and they build their theories around that idea.
Some say he came from a poor family, others – or perhaps the same ones – insist that he did not have a formal education. There are even those who insist that he couldn’t write at all. That he was illiterate!
But the idea that he would stop to visit his friend and rest before completing the journey to London and, instead of sitting back, having a drink with him and bringing him up to date on the London scene, he slipped off with his wife, falling over kids as they went, and spent ‘quality time’ with her instead, is about as feasible as the idea that the late Christopher Marlowe wrote his plays. And equally disrespectable to the Bard.